While the Western Genre will never see the likes of Sergio Leone or John Ford again, there have been enough great modern Westerns to satisfy the fans, from critically acclaimed pieces like The Revenant and The Assassination of Jesse James to more genre focused flicks such as Bone Tomahawk and 3:10 To Yuma. The Ballad Of Lefty Brown fits more into the latter – there’s definitely an appreciation for the genre and for those more familiar with Westerns a strong execution keeps some of the more familiar elements from feeling stale.
Set in 1889 just as civilization is rolling through the States, former Montana Lawman Eddie Johnson is set to become Senator of the state and plans to leave his long-time partner Lefty Brown in charge of the ranch, much to the annoyance of Eddie’s wife Laura who doesn’t think much of the slow and old Lefty. On the last day before his ride to Washington, Eddie chases after some horse-thieves with Lefty, only for Eddie to be shot dead by the bandit.
Lefty returns Eddie’s body and vows to track down his killer despite his age and weakened limbs, on the trail he meets young Wild Bill wannabe Jeremiah, and former law-buddy turned Marshall Tom Harrah sent by Governor Jimmy Bierce to bring Lefty back while he tends to Eddie’s final affairs with Laura. After convincing Tom to join their posses, the three men set off after the killer, but things become complicated once they realize that Eddie’s death might not have been as random as expected.
Corruption and lawlessness in the Old West is nothing new. The underlying theme of the encroaching civilization has also been touched on before in the genre, but it’s how this film handles them that makes it work. The film layers on each new element surrounding the reasoning of Eddie’s death, so we learn the details at the same pace as Lefty. His old fashioned mindset allows the more modern villains to take advantage and turn the film into directions you wouldn’t expect for a Western. There’s a familiarity to the story, but it takes more surprising steps than you might not have thought initially.
Character work was one of the film’s best components; Peter Fonda made good work in his short role of Eddie, showing a man of a different age making waves in the oncoming future. Kathy Baker as his wife Laura showed the same old-fashioned toughness as her husband, refusing to give up her ranch without a fight despite what the law said and running the farm-hands with respect but equal force.
Diego Josef plays Jeremiah, a young man (closer to a boy than anything else) with a lot to prove and the courage to match. He joins the posse by chance after running into Lefty and manages to stick with them; bolstered by the prospect of hunting down an outlaw like his heroes in the stories. Josef manages to play the part with confidence without going so far as to be annoying. Jeremiah’s reliance on the old-ways did not go as expected, and as a result he became a source of redemption for Lefty – someone to look after following the loss of Eddie.
Tommy Flanagan as Tom provided the film with the thematic opposite of Lefty, while both men strived for the same goal they had very different methods of achieving it. A former Lawman alongside Eddie and Lefty, Tom kept to the law to become a Marshall, even becoming one of the heroes in Jeremiah’s stories. Though after the kidnap and murder of his wife and subsequent fall into alcoholism, he tried to keep things easy and clean to avoid falling off the wagon again. The ironic part of Tom’s character is that while he’s a far tougher character than Lefty and more open towards the use of torture and intimidation, psychologically he’s weaker and struggles to keep the same moral centre. The two men provided a great juxtaposition for each other due to their shared history and the different way both of them turned out.
Jim Caviezel gave the film one of its more unique characters as Jimmy Bierce, the first Governor of Montana. While it’s clear very early on that he’s not as clean as he would like you to think, he manages to operate with an almost puppet-master sense of order. On the outset he’s calm, soft-spoken and civilized and he keeps that facade up throughout the film, relying on backhanded tactics, hired thugs and even just good old-fashioned trust to keep ahead of the game, but never once implicating himself. It made for a nice change of pace for the charming villain to be charming throughout rather than an obvious monster behind closed doors, it made it easier to see how he managed to trick so many people into listening to him.
The titular Lefty Brown was played by Bill Pullman who goes against his Independence Day image to play a much softer character, Lefty isn’t the hero you’d expect for this type of story, if anything he’s the well-meaning sidekick. Friendly and loyal but too old, too wounded, and too slow to be much use to anyone, in fact you could make the argument that he only went after Eddie’s killers’ cause he didn’t know what else to do. There’s a great line that Pullman balances, his tenacity makes Lefty capable but obnoxious at times when trying to prove himself. However, Pullman is able to keep our sympathies with Lefty at all times because he’s trying to be the hero and that drive coupled with some of what happens to him towards the third act allows the audience to want to see him succeed.
Director Jared Moshe helps form this piece through his obvious appreciation for the Western Genre. He doesn’t layer the film with gunfights nor does he take a methodical piece, but rather finds a happy middle ground. There’s still a reasonably quick pace to the whole thing which helps keep the unique elements fresh by allowing the consequences to be quick and succinct – for example, an attempt at gun-slinging badassery is swiftly brought to an end before it can even get started. At the same time he doesn’t litter the film with gun-fights, there’s really only 2 (technically two and a half) but both serve their purposes well. The first builds a slow tension that shoots into high-gear once a third party gets involved while the second takes on the typical but not unwelcome trope of the few VS the many by pitting Lefty’s posse against a small army that’s over as quickly as it starts.
Where Moshe does his best work is in how he ties everything together, despite the inclusion of Governors, railroads and civilization. The film on the whole is actually focused on a very small portion of Montana. Additionally, all the main characters have a history together (with the exception of Jeremiah) and Eddie’s death brings back a lot of old memories and forgotten grievances. It’s a smart way of handling the film since it allows a lot of unspoken dialogue to bulk up the relationships between the characters and their reaction to what’s happening. Tom’s fall back into alcoholism is brought about by his questioning of who to trust, Jimmy works on an attempt to civilize a land that no longer has a place for the likes of Eddie and Lefty, Laura’s own distrust of Lefty blinds her from what he husband tried to teach her, even Lefty’s lack of knowledge for any other way of working holds him back in her quest for vengeance. The irony of Jimmy representing civilization is that we know he’s right, this isn’t the land of renegade Lawmen anymore. In part Jeremiah works against the theme by following his heroes and getting taken down for it, but the film takes a more bittersweet turn where things haven’t changed but they’re about to, and when it does there’ll be no ballads sung about the men of the old world.
The Ballad Of Lefty Brown doesn’t break new ground but it does enough to build on what’s already there to appeal to fans of Westerns. The familiarity of a revenge story is brokered by modern tricks and surprising twists. Pullman, Flanagan and Caviezel all play three men of the same background, but portraying different aspects of a changing world. Moshe adds enough thematic weight to mourn the death of the outlaw, but hint that the changing times were going to kill him anyway.
I am giving The Ballad of Lefty Brown a 3 & ½ Out of 5 Hairpieces